Is Shinto animism plus ancestor worship? Or is it ancestor worship plus animism?
There’s a big drive these days to pass Shinto off as a nature religion, but wherever you turn you’ll find the ancestral aspect can’t be ignored. Look through the newly published Shinto Shrines for instance, and the overwhelming majority of kami worshipped are ancestral in nature. In an earlier posting I wrote arguing that animism trumps ancestor worship (click here). Now I’d like to argue the exact opposite.
In Lafcadio Hearn’s Japan: an Attempt at Interpretation (1904), the Irishman makes a powerful case for seeing the whole of Japanese culture, not just the religion, through the lens of ancestor worship. ‘Almost everything in Japanese society derives directly or indirectly from this ancestor-cult; and that in all matters the dead, rather than the living, have been the rulers of the nation,’ he writes.
The book has some bluntly stated convictions. Early ancestor worship, based on a belief that ghosts were the spirits of the dead, is ‘the root of all religions’. It was a theory propounded by Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ as he was known. According to his thinking, ghosts came to be seen as spirits of relatives and ancestral figures that live on after death.
The ancestral spirits were ascribed superhuman powers, such as the ability to protect or punish the family household. Offerings were therefore put out for their well-being, and ‘hungry spirits’ who felt neglected by their heirs were thought to wreck havoc as a result. In other words, ghosts were turned into gods.
Hearn’s argument is that ‘the cult of the dead’ became deeply ingrained in Japanese thinking, such that it lies at the core of both Shinto and Buddhism. It found expression in three main spheres: the domestic, the communal and the national. In the domestic sphere, family ancestors (specifically the previous two generations) are honoured at a family shrine or altar. At the communal level, neighbourhoods join in worshipping their clan ancestors in a local shrine (ujigami). And at the national level, people honour the imperial ancestors.
In this way ancestral worship affects all elements of the culture. Individualism was suppressed as a result, because of the tendency to see oneself as part of a household, or as part of an ancestral line. Instead of putting oneself first, there was an emphasis on loyalty, groupism, self-sacrifice, hard work, honesty, purity and consideration of others. ‘Spirit eyes are watching every act; spirit ears are listening to every word [-] the heart must be pure, the mind must be under control..’, he writes. It was such thinking, Hearn argues, that shaped the charm, grace and selflessness of the Japanese female.
According to Hearn, animism is a later idea than ancestor worship and was imported from China. The idea that animism preceded ancestor worship is ‘old-fashioned’, he claims. ‘The earliest Shinto literature gives no evidence of such a developed animism as that now existing,’ he goes on.
There’s much in Hearn’s book that has one nodding in agreement, despite the intervening 100 years of Westernisation. It’s a tribute to his perspicacity. He even seems at one point to be predicting the kamikaze spirit of WW2 as he writes of the fanatical desire for self-sacrifice to which the culture can lead, describing Shinto at the national level as ‘a religion of patriotism’. He offers an explanation too as to why Christianity has failed to make inroads in Japan, in that it has not accepted ancestor worship.
Even within a Westernising Japan can be discerned the unmistakable shape of ancestor worship, claims Hearn, comparing the situation to a topiary left to its own devices – though it becomes overgrown, the original shape can still be made out, fainter and less obvious perhaps but nonetheless clearly discernible.
One of my good friends, a Japanese university teacher, is a sophisticated woman with thoroughly Westernised tastes, who graduated from a Christian school and university. ‘It’s very strange,’ she said to me once. ‘I don’t believe in religion or gods or anything like that. But I pray to my father every morning, offer him food and tell him what’s on my mind. I don’t know why, but it seems natural to me.’
Full marks to Hearn – I think he hit the nail on the head. There’s good reason that his books remain in print, and after enjoying Japan: an Attempt at Interpretation so much, I can’t help looking at him as a kind of kindred spirit. An ancestral spirit, indeed, of the non-Japanese community in Japan.